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Rethinking the “Hamidian massacres”: the issue of the precedent

Repenser les « massacres hamidiens » : la question du précédent
Boris Adjemian et Mikaël Nichanian
Traduction de Alexandra Garbarini
p. 19-29

Résumés

Ce texte est l’introduction au numéro spécial d’Études arméniennes contemporaines sur « Les massacres de l’époque hamidienne : récits globaux, approches locales ».

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Texte intégral

  • 1 S. Deringil, 2009.
  • 2 D. Rodogno, 2012; M.L. M. Anderson, 2015; J. Laycock, 2009; V. Duclert, 2015; M. Tusan, 2014; S. Ih (...)
  • 3 Unlike some later historians’ depictions of him as a modernizer of the state and the empire. See B. (...)
  • 4 H.-L. Kieser, 2000; F. Dündar, 2010 ; S.H. Astourian, 2001.

1The extreme violence that targeted Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II between 1894 and 1897 left innumerable traces in memory throughout the 20th century and up to the present day. The violence massively destabilized Armenian communities in Eastern Anatolia, resulting in waves of conversions,1 socio-economic devastation, and also internal and external migrations, especially to Constantinople and the urban centers of Anatolia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Egypt, and the Americas. More than the genocide of 1915-1916, perpetrated at a time when European “public opinions” were entirely absorbed by the ongoing war, the massacres of the Hamidian period were committed when the Ottoman Empire and Europe faced no major conflict. This is one of the reasons these killings attracted the attention of the press in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of Europe. In their time, they led to unprecedented mobilization by intellectuals, activists, and philanthropists in support of Armenians, particularly in England and France, but also in Russia, Italy, Germany, and the United States. As such, they mark an important moment in the history of humanitarian action and reflection, as demonstrated recently by several important works.2 The violence also tarnished the image of the man who was accused of being its main instigator, Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), known in the contemporary press as the “Red Sultan” and “Great Assassin”.3 Indeed, the massacres of Abdülhamid’s reign were long portrayed in Europe as the lingering remnants of “Asian” and “primitive” barbarism, as compared to mass crimes committed with “modern” and even industrial means, such as the Jewish genocide. Reading the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid through the prism of modernity, however, casts new light on the massacres of the Hamidian period. They bear different meanings when analyzed as the first attempt by the Ottoman Empire to impose, if not ethnic, then religious homogenization in Anatolia.4

  • 5 J.-M. Carzou, 1975.
  • 6 See a first attempt of a collective work on this issue with R.G. Suny, 2001.

2Whole segments of the history of this violence have yet to be written. Long perceived in teleological terms as a set of paroxysmal events heralding the genocide, as a “dress rehearsal” [répétition générale] to quote the argument of a well-known public work published in France in 1975,5 the violence perpetrated against Ottoman Armenians between 1894 and 1897 has not given rise to substantive research.6 It has remained in the shadow of the research devoted to the genocide.

  • 7 Y.T. Cora, 2016.
  • 8 J. Verheij, 2012, studies in details the massacres of 1895-1897 in the region of Diyarbekir.
  • 9 It is not possible to account here for this abundant bibliography which now includes many titles in (...)
  • 10 See R.H. Kévorkian, 2013.
  • 11 See for instance V. Tachjian, 2017.

3In the meantime, research on the Armenian genocide has developed at an accelerated pace since the 1990s, when it opened up to new disciplines and began to benefit from the interest of a growing number of scholars and specialists in mass violence. The weakness of historical research on anti-Armenian violence under Abdülhamid’s reign at the same time has persisted and is undeniable. Moreover, it is not specific to the “Hamidian” massacres, but, more generally, to the long-standing marginality of historical studies conducted on the “Ottoman East” in the 19th century, both from the point of view of Turkish and Ottoman historiography, but also, paradoxically, of Armenian studies.7 Still today there exists no major synthesis on the subject as well as an absence of regional monographs,8 whereas the genocide of 1915-1916 has given rise in recent years to an impressive number of publications.9 Long a prisoner of the necessity of bringing “evidence” to light in order to counter denialist discourses, research on the Armenian genocide began in the 1990s to explore broader fields and themes,10 to consider other sources and new questions. The political, ideological, economic, and demographic aspects of the genocide, as well as its social and cultural dimensions, have become the topics of historical research.11 Such questions are just beginning to be raised with regard to the massacres of the Hamidian period.

  • 12 The reports of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, established at the time or just after, (...)
  • 13 On these regiments, see J. Klein, 2011. The question of their involvement in the Armenian massacres (...)

4It is commonly accepted that the violence and crimes committed against the Ottoman Armenians in the years 1894-1897 were massive. However, no study has been able to establish with precision the geographical extent of the violence nor the number of victims,12 nor has a proper terminology to qualify them yet emerged. The events as a whole are often referred to as the “Hamidian massacres” as a way of relating them to the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid, but also in order to emphasize the responsibility of the latter, which is why this expression rarely features in Turkish and Ottoman classical historiographies. Beyond questions of qualification, we still know very little about the perpetration of the violence on the ground, including the identities of the actors, the role of the representatives of the state, the local potentates or notables, of the Ottoman army, and of tribal militias (the famous Kurdish hamidiye regiments)13 – all of which seemingly varied depending on the locale. These issues are just starting to be the subject of substantive works, that is to say of works that mobilize all available materials – in particular the Ottoman, European, Russian, and Armenian press and archives – thus making regional and/or more granular approaches possible.

5Ideally, the terminology scholars employ should reflect the questions and categories they treat, with all their requisite nuances and complexity. The very term “massacres,” however, is anything but precise, raising many questions while providing few answers as to the nature of the violence and what distinguishes those occurrences from – or connects them to – other instances of violence: for example those perpetrated earlier in the Ottoman Empire (against the Maronites in Lebanon in 1860, or the “Bulgarian atrocities” in 1876) or later as in the genocide in 1915-1916, but also the massacres perpetrated by the Kemalist forces against Armenian refugees and survivors in Cilicia and elsewhere in Anatolia in the aftermath of the Great War. Moreover, how did the violence of the mid-1890s differ from ordinary violence against Armenians in the Eastern vilayets throughout the second half of the 19th century and again, locally and repeatedly, in the first decade of the twentieth century? Where did a change of scale occur and does such a change of scale, or quantitative change, imply a change in the very nature of the committed violence, or qualitative change?

  • 14 See the historiographical essay by R. Hovannisian, 2015.

6The massacres of the Hamidian period, like the Armenian genocide, have long been studied as part of the larger “Armenian question” from a perspective that gives preeminence to diplomatic history – that of international relations between the Sublime Porte and the Powers, and in particular the interventionism of the latter in the name of the protection of Christians in the Balkans and in the East, in a history punctuated by conflicts (the Crimean War in 1853-1856, the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-1878, the Tripolitania war in 1911-1912, the Balkan wars in 1912-1913, the First World War) and treaties (San Stefano and Berlin in 1878, Sèvres in 1919, Lausanne in 1923, etc.). In conjunction with this long-term perspective is the fact that numerous actors and privileged observers of the period in Europe were contemporaries of both the massacres of 1894-1897 and the genocide, among them James Bryce in England and Johannes Lepsius in Germany, all of which no doubt partially explains the connections many historians draw between these two episodes of extreme violence to the point even of conflating them or including them as part of the same series of massacres. In Armenia, the historiography of the genocide continues to associate them, referring to the existence of a plan to exterminate Ottoman Armenians as having been conceived at the time of the Congress of Berlin and the European insistence on reforms in favor of the Christians of the empire, and then implemented throughout the period, ending with the genocide of 1915-1916. Historians of Armenia thus situate the genocide in a long continuum of extreme violence that began in the 1890s, or even the 1870s.14

  • 15 R.H. Kévorkian, 2011.
  • 16 See for instance the book of V. Duclert, 2015, which covers mostly the period of the massacres perp (...)

7This is not, however, the recent trend in European and more broadly Western historiographies. In his magisterial book on the genocide,15 Raymond Kévorkian, while attributing to the massacres of Adana (1909) a very important place, does not trace a link backwards to the massacres of the 1890s. Kévorkian’s relegation of the latter to the background bears significance, since it emphasizes the specificities of the mass violence committed in 1915-1916 in terms of context (the total war, the backlash of the Balkan wars), ideology (the ultranationalism of the Committee for Union and Progress), motivations (the definitive eradication of the Armenian presence in Anatolia, and not the mere attempt to silence the claims for reforms in their favor), and also practices adopted against the victims (beginning with deportations, the clear delegation of killings to the commandos of “butchers” of the special organization, etc.). There is, however, no unanimity, or even broad consensus among historians on this issue, and in Europe and the United States the temptation to reconcile these two major episodes of violence persists,16 with the result that the concept of “genocide” can end up diluted when it is applied to the entire period from the Sassoun massacre (1894) to the First World War, or even from the Congress of Berlin (1878) to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). The diversity of the positions articulated by scholars at the major international symposium on the Armenian genocide, which was held in Paris in March 2015, demonstrates that there is still a great deal of confusion, rather than a clearly defined debate on these issues.

8Obviously, the wide-ranging historiographical interpretations are in part a consequence of the state of the research on the massacres of the Hamidian period. The delay in the study of this period is all the more damaging as it weakens the validity of the comparisons that can be established or sought between the massacres of the years 1894-1897 and subsequent mass crimes: the Adana massacres of 1909; the genocide perpetrated during the Great War; massacres also committed by the Kemalist forces in the early 1920s, without even mentioning the mass violence that affected other Christian communities (Greek, Assyro-Chaldean) and Muslim communities of the Ottoman Empire. But the comparisons, and thus also the investigation of continuities and ruptures, are essential for understanding each of these episodes of extreme and collective violence. At the heart of this research is the question of the precedent: what links can be established between a genocide and the mass crimes that preceded it – a question that is acute for other genocides in the 20th century, whether one thinks of Rwanda in 1994 and 1957 for example, or the heavy legacy of pogroms, anti-Semitism and, more generally, violence against civilians in large areas of Eastern Europe, before the Second World War and the Nazi crimes.

  • 17 See V.N. Dadrian, 2001. For a critique of the culturalist assumptions at work in much of the histor (...)
  • 18 See V.N. Dadrian, 1995; Id., 1989.

9Critical reflection seems all the more necessary here because the conception of a continuum, as developed for example in the works of Vahakn Dadrian, tends to present the massacres of the Hamidian period, starting with that of Sassun, not merely as harbingers of the genocide,17 but also as the product of a cultural mold, Ottoman and Islamic, carrying an insurmountable antagonism between Muslims and Christians that would lead in a teleological fashion to the annihilation of Armenians.18 One runs the risk thereby of dehistoricizing our understanding of these incidents of mass violence. By contrast, posing the question what linkages existed between the genocide and the violence that preceded it by twenty years makes full sense from a historical point of view. The idea is not to reinforce illusory trajectories, but to refine our understanding of the working and consequences of collective violence in the late Ottoman Empire. In both cases, the perpetration of the crimes often confronted the same actors, from the executioners and the predators or their victims, to third parties (eyewitnesses, missionaries and diplomats, activists abroad mobilizing aid for Armenians). Moreover, this period of extreme violence, which also corresponds to a pivotal period in the political and social history of the Ottoman Empire, raises further questions about elements of continuity and rupture, questions that go beyond the debates on chronology and terminology. In what way did the massacres of the Hamidian period constitute a precedent for the genocide? What does knowledge of one bring to understanding the other?

  • 19 Interpretations deeply diverge on this matter. See for example R. Hovannisian, 1997; F. Georgeon, 2 (...)
  • 20 See the numerous issues raised by Raymond Kévorkian in R.H. Kévorkian, 1992.
  • 21 S. Deringil, 1999.
  • 22 See V.N. Dadrian, 2001; R. Morris, 2001. For a recent analyse, see M. Polatel, 2016. For a widening (...)
  • 23 H.-L. Kieser, 2000; S. Deringil, 2009; S.H. Astourian, 2011; E. Hartmann, 2013.

10These questions concern the perceptions as much as they do the practices of contemporaries. Of course, they also return us to the pivotal historiographical debate about the responsibility at the highest level of the Ottoman state for planning the crimes committed against Armenians in the 1890s.19 From the beginning, the fact of the involvement of the central Ottoman authorities has been advanced on the basis of the numerous testimonies of European contemporaries, but also more recently thanks to the study of the reports produced by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople.20 The issue of the state’s responsibility is now also considered in light of official Ottoman sources,21 without being limited to the question of the Sultan’s personal responsibility or to demonstrating “premeditation of the crime.” More broadly, current research traces the development of denial discourses by the Ottoman authorities, beginning with the Sassun crisis in 1894, that might be compared with those formulated later on about the genocide, in particular the thesis of the revolt and/or betrayal of the Armenian internal enemy (about the Armenians of Van for example in April 1915), as well as the reversal of roles between victims and criminals.22 Recent work has also made it possible to explore further the complexity of Armenian-Kurdish relations and to consider them as one of the fundamental keys for understanding the violence that hit the Armenian and Assyrian-Chaldean communities in the years 1894-1897.23

11This special issue of Études arméniennes contemporaines is the first step in a publication project launched one year ago about the massacres of the Hamidian period. It will soon be followed by a second volume currently in preparation. Considering the scarcity of historical works devoted to the perpetration of the violence on the ground, we decided to devote this first volume to regional studies. Edip Gölbaşı’s article analyzes the language and terminology used by Ottoman authorities at the local and imperial levels to describe the violence while it was unfolding. Focusing on events in the region of Sıvas, he shows how these discursive practices made it possible to blame victims early on, while guaranteeing impunity for criminals. Jelle Verheij, the author of previously published important works on this little-studied period, lays out as precisely as possible the state of sources and knowledge about the events of 1895-1897 in two rural districts of the vilayet of Bitlis. His article thus refines at the subregional level our knowledge of violence, its victims (in terms of numbers) and perpetrators (with regard to their identification), while underscoring the interpretative limits of the available sources. In a resolutely micro-historical approach to the Harput (Kharpert) massacres which questions the notion of collective violence, Ali Sipahi confronts and deconstructs the different narratives of those events. He traces the discursive shift that was introduced on the part of the authorities as early as the day after those acts of violence, shifting the focus away from the incrimination of the Kurds and to the thesis that violence ensued as a result of a provocation by Armenian revolutionaries. The “provocation thesis” imposed itself later and for a long time among specialists of Ottoman and Turkish history. Studying the Sassun massacres of the summer of 1894 and their historiographical legacy through a wide variety of sources, Owen Miller attempts to set them in the context of the long history of the centralization of Ottoman imperial power and its control over mountain regions. Deborah Mayersen traces the course of the massacres at Harput and their human and social consequences through the study of a corpus of missionary archives. Finally, to close the volume, the sources presented by David Gaunt highlight the often unknown fate of Syriac communities – here in the vilayet of Diyarbekir – during the massacres of the Hamidian period. The texts gathered here bring a fresh look to bear on these little-known acts of violence and, we are convinced, augur well for further research.

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Bibliographie

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Astourian Stephan H., “The Silence of the Land: Agrarian Relations, Ethnicity, and Power,” in R.G. Suny et al., 2011, p. 55-81.

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Cora Yaşar Tolga, Derderian Dzovinar and Sipahi Ali (ed.), The Ottoman East in the Nineteenth Century: Societies, Identities and Politics, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2016, p. 1-15.

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Note de fin

1 S. Deringil, 2009.

2 D. Rodogno, 2012; M.L. M. Anderson, 2015; J. Laycock, 2009; V. Duclert, 2015; M. Tusan, 2014; S. Ihrig, 2016.

3 Unlike some later historians’ depictions of him as a modernizer of the state and the empire. See B. Lewis, 1961; E. Zürcher, 1993; F. Georgeon, 2003.

4 H.-L. Kieser, 2000; F. Dündar, 2010 ; S.H. Astourian, 2001.

5 J.-M. Carzou, 1975.

6 See a first attempt of a collective work on this issue with R.G. Suny, 2001.

7 Y.T. Cora, 2016.

8 J. Verheij, 2012, studies in details the massacres of 1895-1897 in the region of Diyarbekir.

9 It is not possible to account here for this abundant bibliography which now includes many titles in the major European languages, and also in Armenian and Turkish. For a recent attempt at such a bibliography, see E. Yeghiayan, 2015.

10 See R.H. Kévorkian, 2013.

11 See for instance V. Tachjian, 2017.

12 The reports of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, established at the time or just after, point to nearly 300,000 deaths directly caused by these massacres, not to mention tens of thousands of additional victims of famines and epidemics. The range of estimates given in the literature on the subject is between 100,000 and 300,000 killed. Moreover, there is also a lack of evidence to assess the scale of the internal and external emigration movement that affected the Armenian communities of the empire as a result of the violence. On this issue, see D. Gutman, 2016.

13 On these regiments, see J. Klein, 2011. The question of their involvement in the Armenian massacres is mentioned several times in this volume, particularly in the articles of Ali Sipahi and Jelle Verheij.

14 See the historiographical essay by R. Hovannisian, 2015.

15 R.H. Kévorkian, 2011.

16 See for instance the book of V. Duclert, 2015, which covers mostly the period of the massacres perpetrated before the genocide.

17 See V.N. Dadrian, 2001. For a critique of the culturalist assumptions at work in much of the historiography of the Armenian genocide and the violence that preceded it, see R.G. Suny, 2011.

18 See V.N. Dadrian, 1995; Id., 1989.

19 Interpretations deeply diverge on this matter. See for example R. Hovannisian, 1997; F. Georgeon, 2003; M. Nichanian, 2015 ; R.G. Suny, 2015.

20 See the numerous issues raised by Raymond Kévorkian in R.H. Kévorkian, 1992.

21 S. Deringil, 1999.

22 See V.N. Dadrian, 2001; R. Morris, 2001. For a recent analyse, see M. Polatel, 2016. For a widening of this notion of responsibility, read Edip Gölbaşı’s article in this volume.

23 H.-L. Kieser, 2000; S. Deringil, 2009; S.H. Astourian, 2011; E. Hartmann, 2013.

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Boris Adjemian et Mikaël Nichanian, « Rethinking the “Hamidian massacres”: the issue of the precedent », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 10 | 2018, 19-29.

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Boris Adjemian et Mikaël Nichanian, « Rethinking the “Hamidian massacres”: the issue of the precedent », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 10 | 2018, mis en ligne le 10 septembre 2018, consulté le 21 septembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/eac/1335 ; DOI : 10.4000/eac.1335

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Boris Adjemian

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